For a brief moment, as it was both truly brief and momentary, The Real Housewives of New York returned to its quasi-anthropological (or at least by Bravo standards)/Lauren Greenfield-esque roots. In the premiere episode of its 13th season, the reality TV show paused to show us a reality that was beyond the grip of producers and could not be manicured or performed or contrived in the way that many of us reductively understand how reality TV functions. It was just about time and space for a second: the relentless streets of New York on March 1, 2020, everyone going about their lives, walking around, talking, the beautiful symphony of chaos that’s come to be associated with the city. The little card on the bottom left taunted as a piece of painful dramatic irony for the viewers, and in a few seconds, the show cut to October, five months later, New York now a ghost town. We’re still not so far removed from that, even if the city is trying to revive itself and approximate an impossible normalcy. But the juxtaposition between the starkness of a New York alive and kicking and the Chantal Akerman-esque emptiness is still close enough to feel, the transition, the feeling of time and space themselves, still tangible. (And didn’t the pandemic feel horribly contrived in its own way, as if produced by a vindictive god to get the most dramatic reaction shots?)
At a fairly pithy 74-minutes, The New York Times Presents: Framing Britney Spears articulates its desire to be about control even in its runtime. It hurriedly attempts to establish the authorship the pop star had in her early career, even within the confines of a misogynistic industry (“industry” here can mean so much), and the ways in which it was wrenched from her in a litany of ways and from a myriad of sources, interpersonal and institutional. Even the documentary’s title bristles with its thematizing, the star wavering between the agency of self-assured diva and object beneath public, and private, thumb. That early in the film, we see her former assistant, Felicia Culotta, take the cameraperson on a tour of the various records kept behind glass, is indicative of both the obviousness of many of the film’s points and the labyrinthine nostalgia the internet has crafted for such public figures to make even the most cynical viewer quiver with sadness.
The impulse for this film is supposedly rooted in a kind of advocacy on the part of the Times; locked in a decade-plus conservatorship by her father, Jamie Spears, Spears’ safety, work, and full autonomy has come into question by many both reading into her cryptic behavior (primarily online) as well as her subtle public acknowledgment of this growing issue (and the people supporting her) regarding her rights as a mother and, perhaps, worker. With an unusual network of power and money possibly fueling the complicated situation, the film poses itself as a contemporary analog to muckraking, on behalf of a celebrity whose ubiquity made it easy to project onto and thus, moreso, manipulate. The film, however, feels more like yellow journalism.
There is a piece of archival footage in Three Identical Strangers that director Tim Wardle plays for the audience in triplicate: the boys, the subjects of the film, on a talk show in what appears to be a megachurch arena. The host, grey haired, stands closer with his audience, as the sideshow attraction sit on the yellowy orange carpeted stage, wearing the same outfit: a vomit and sunburnt green pull over and khaki pants. Their legs are spread apart and they slouch, and were they on the R train, they could easily be accused of manspreading. Three fold. The host, holding a microphone that looks like a Freudian lollipop, points out that the three of them are sitting in the same position. A quarter of a second later, the boy on the far left crosses his legs, and the other two, like a wave, follow. And although it’s played like magical, hokey intuition between the three identical triplets, their unknowable shared energy on display for the whole world, seeing the footage played twice, and three times reveals a bit of hesitancy on the second and third brothers in terms of following the action. But it happens, and the crowd goes wild, three times. Unquestioned. Read the rest of this entry »
Once every season, RuPaul gathers her remaining gurls, brings them to the front of the “Werk Room”, gives them fake frames to hold over their faces like a monocle, and announces elegantly, “In the grand tradition of Paris is Burning, the library is now open.” The queens, on RuPaul’s Drag Race, proceed to read – make snarky insults at one another, kind of like a roast – the rest of the queens, and whomever makes the cleverest and wittiest jabs wins the mini-challenge. This is what is left of Paris is Burning. The embers that still glow are, shall we say, a bit appropriative. “Werk”, “Realness”, “Shade”, and the rest of them have all entered into a cultural lexicon that is no longer exclusive to the community from whom it was basically taken (some of the vernacular stems from AAEV), and though Jennie Livingston’s documentary still exists as a cultural touchstone, it’s only in the most “basic” of ways. Read the rest of this entry »
Cinema verite is a style of documentary filmmaking which is usually characterized by its naturalistic style. It is, as its translation suggests, “truthful cinema”. Primarily telling the truth about life, cinema verite is often used in documentary filmmaking. While there have certainly been revolutionary films made in this style, such as Gimme Shelter, Hoop Dreams, and Woodstock, never has the scope of the style, or in documentary filmmaking in general, been so huge as Life in a Day. Culling together 80,000 entries and 4,500 hours of footage, this community made documentary is a stunning look at life.
All of the footage, submitted by YouTube users, depicts life in one day, July 24th, 2010. It seems interesting, albeit a rather simplistic concept. Large and daunting, but again, a bit simplistic. But Editor Joe Walker has taken these images and gave them power. I am sure that individually, they would have been fine and they each would have had their own meaning and what not, but together, they are harmonious and powerful.
It is interesting that instead of portraying the vast differences in our various environments and ideologies and even thoughts that the editors and overall style of the film took the approach to show the homogony. While the singular events that shape our lives are all different, generally, we do the same things. We all wake up in the morning (or don’t) and we all have breakfast of some sort and we all have some sort of routine.
The steady flow of images, so seamlessly edited, is one of the best parts of the film. The film never ceases to hold the viewer’s attention. This is less due to the scattershot and chaotic style of editing that’s permeated filmmaking since MTV first aired, but merely because the images are so interesting. They all have their own individualistic meaning, as well as a collective one. Comparing and contrasting shots that are obviously staged for aesthetic reason against those that are truly spontaneous and off the cuff is fun and interesting. One is reminded of Jean-Luc Godard’s revolutionary jump cuts in his debut Breathless. Not because they’re simply jump cuts, but because each splice is about the passing time of meaning and nothingness, as each fragmentary moment passes by.
As daunting as the task probably was, just putting the film together is nothing. Putting it together and actually creating memorable moments is something else. The intimacy one is able to perceive from many moments throughout the film is astounding. Throughout the film, not only does the audience get a slice of life from someone, but a real taste of their life. Touching moments filled with emotion. While these may seem maybe a little routine and mundane, they take on a new meaning in the film.
Life in a Day is an impressive feat for a documentary. The scope and scale is monumental. The film is packed with emotion and grabs your attention from the very start. Each story and each frame has meaning and its visually arresting style make it one of the best documentaries of the year.
Watch the full film here.